Learning From Our Students

Thank You for teaching us what it means to Learn to Change the World

Faculty graduation speech to the graduating class of the
Harvard Graduate School of Education
May 25, 2016

Good afternoon! How good it is to watch all of you ready to graduate tomorrow. I bring you greetings from my faculty colleagues and congratulations on your hard work during your studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It has been a joy to learn alongside you during your studies. In these remarks I want to share some reflections on what you have taught us about leading educational change to improve the world and to offer an invitation for reflection on what it means be part of the global education movement that has produced one of the most remarkable quiet revolutions in history. I will draw these reflections from only one of the many instances in which you have constructed part of the curriculum to support your own learning and ours as we have tried to live up to the aspiration reflected in the campaign's theme: Learn to change the world.

Several weeks ago I participated in the China Education Symposium which some of you organized. A student initiative which began only five years ago as a gathering on a Saturday of two dozen students, had grown into a three day event that filled Askwith Auditorium, bringing together students and faculty from multiple campuses in the United States and in China to discuss the significant educational transformations taking place in that country, home to 17 percent of the world's children. I was especially impressed by the presentations of the seven teams of high school students you had brought from China to Cambridge to present the projects they had created to address serious social challenges. Those of you who organized the Symposium had invited teachers in fifty high schools in China to partner with you in creating a Youth Leadership Challenge, an opportunity for their students to identify and address issues in social inclusion and sustainability. In thoughtful ways these teenagers were working to support children in rural areas whose parents migrate to the cities in search of work, to foster the use of renewable energies, to support the education of the poorest students. In these service projects these students were gaining and demonstrating important competencies for life, for work and for civic engagement: compassion, empathy, imagination, complex thinking, the capacity to understand social challenges, the skills to identify a point of entry to address them, and the courage, commitment and skills to implicate themselves and to collaborate across several dimensions of difference in constructing a solution. These are the competencies every student around the world should gain in school in the 21st century, the blend of academic skills and character, of self-knowledge and leadership, of complex thinking, communications, creativity and capacity to solve problems which are essential to participate in complex societies and to face the rapidly evolving challenges of our times.

Those high school students had clearly benefited from the good work of their teachers who had created for them the opportunities to develop as whole human beings. They had also benefited from the initiative of those of you who reached out to their teachers, seven thousand miles away from Cambridge, and included them in the youth leadership challenge you had created. In taking this initiative you taught us two important lessons.

The first, that to learn to change the world, as is our collective aspiration in this school, one must become a participant in trying to improve it. That learning and insight result from reflection on action and that we must actively engage in partnerships with teachers and education leaders who are working to prepare the young with the competencies that empower them to be contributors in addressing the challenges of their times in order to generate knowledge that is relevant to advancing that work.

The second lesson you taught us is that if we are to learn to improve the world, to repair it, we need to do this work IN the world, the full 197 million square miles of the earth's surface, and engaging with the full 7 billion humans who inhabit it. We may do our particular share of this work locally, with a particular group of students, in a particular community, but we must keep sight of the links between this local action and the global enterprise of which it is a part.

There is so much to be gained from the comparative study of how it is that teachers and education institutions equip the young to face the future. Education is a global enterprise, one that brings humanity together in discerning how to pass on to the next generation what we consider valuable, and how to prepare them to create a world that is better than the one we are passing on to them. We can all benefit from learning across borders how best to do this work.

After all, the children of the world are human, members of our species, descendants of the same African parents, before most of us became migrants and members of the many invented communities which define our sense of who we are: clan, tribe, religion, nationality, social class, or race. The scientific study of education, as is all science, is a cosmopolitan activity, one where people collaborate across national boundaries in advancing knowledge. The scientific study of the fundamental processes of learning and teaching should help us understand what is universal, and human, before we can know what is specific to particular contexts or groups. The great variation in global educational practice is a rich laboratory from which we can draw insight on how to educate all children.

The practice and the advancement of education is also one that has benefited from global collaborations. The inclusion of the right of education in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 created one of the most dramatic quiet revolutions in human experience. This quiet revolution transformed a world in which most children did not have the opportunity to set foot in a school before 1948, to one where most children today receive a basic education and in this way have a shared experience of attending institutions invented to socialize the young. This remarkable transformation was the result of actions big and small of educators like you who, over the last seven decades, did what they could to help educate all children well. Today, sixty million teachers around the world are the cornerstone of this global education movement to educate all children. Ninety percent of those students live in the developing world where most of this expansion took place since 1948. Whatever path you follow, and I hope many among you will choose to teach, work to strengthen the profession of teaching everywhere, to recognize teachers and support them, to honor their voice and work in partnership with them. The future of humanity depends on whether teaching becomes a profession aligned with the highest standards of practice and supported with the best resources available to us.

Tomorrow, as you graduate, you will be joining the ranks of this global education movement, you will stand on the shoulder of those giants. I invite you to read the Sustainable Development Goals, the compact adopted by the United Nations last fall at the seventieth general assembly, which articulates a vision of what it would take to create a world with sustainable peace. A world without poverty or hunger, where all have health and education, a world where women and men have the same opportunities, where all have clean water and sanitation, where we use renewable energies, where there are good jobs for all and economic growth and prosperity created by industry and innovation, a world where we reduce inequalities and create sustainable cities and communities, where we consume responsibly and behave in ways that no longer change climate in ways harmful for life on this planet, a world where we honor and protect life under water and on land, a world of peace and justice for all. Studying these goals and why they matter, giving some thought to what it would take to achieve them, can give us a perspective akin to that gained when we view our planet in a picture taken from space. From the vantage point of some distance the beauty of our planet and the rich diversity of life it sustains become clear, how promising and abundant this little spot in the universe is, but also how vulnerable and fragile. This perspective also makes visible how we are all in this together, inexorably bound to each other by the flows of air, water, people, ideas and the butterfly effects caused by our actions, how we will either succeed or fail together, how the challenges we share are shared challenges, and how the children on this planet, all of them, are our children; and our shared future, in this fragile planet, is entirely contingent on whether we succeed or fail in educating all of our children well.

Together we must work so every student is empowered with the competencies necessary to contribute to the achievement of those sustainable development goals. We must educate all students well with an education which is relevant to these challenges, and educate all to be global citizens who understand our shared responsibility to address these challenges together. If we are to succeed in this task we must all take responsibility to educate all children, not just the children in our communities. This means we all share responsibility to educate the 59 million children who today are not in school, to close the educational opportunity gaps facing girls, poor children, and children of marginalized groups around the world, including refugees, and we must take responsibility to ensure that all children who do attend school indeed learn what is necessary to be empowered global citizens.

This work will be fundamentally about the steady effort and the daily actions of teachers and educators such as those who empowered the high school students who visited us from China a few weeks ago and of those of you who partnered with those teachers to create new forms of learning from action for their students. Just as making education a universal human right changed the experience of humanity in only seventy years, your work and leadership as part of the global education movement can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

In the hope that you will do all in your power to do this work of Peace and Justice, my colleagues and I thank you for your commitment to educating all children. We are so proud of you. So grateful for the work we have done together while you were with us. So thankful for what you have taught us about how to change the world. Now go on and lead to improve the world. It is indeed in need of repair. Be certain that, as you do this work, those of us who taught you and learned from you in Appian Way will be cheering you on, and forever in awe of your courage and commitment. Congratulations!